Too whimsical and dissonant for the contemporary Christian music community, yet too Christian for many fans of whimsical, dissonant indie pop: That's the strange and tiny niche that Daniel Smith and his ever-changing collective of musicians—who have recorded under the names Danielson Famile, Brother Danielson, and simply Danielson—have occupied since 1995, when Smith recorded "A Prayer for Every Hour" as a senior thesis project for Rutgers University.
Director J.L. Aronson investigates that niche in the sweet, enjoyable documentary Danielson: A Family Movie. The film combines extensive interviews with concert footage and animation to produce an exhaustive history of Smith's journey, from the band's earliest days of performing in matching nurse's uniforms (to symbolize the healing power of the Good News) to the triumphant 2006 release of Ships. That album, which wound up on many critics' year-end Top Ten lists, represented the culmination of 11 years worth of collaboration and experimentation with family members and famous friends like Steve Albini and Sufjan Stevens.
Stevens, whose album Come on Feel the Illinoise, was one of 2005's biggest critical and commercial successes, is the focus of perhaps too much of the film's middle section. But Danielson does set up an interesting tension: Why should Stevens, whose music also incorporates overt Christian themes, bask in glory while Smith toils in relative obscurity?
The answer has everything to do with the difference in musical styles and artistic visions. Stevens creates lush, sweeping orchestrations that are a perfect fit for Little Miss Sunshine's feel-good soundtrack; his music is pleasant above all else. By contrast, Smith's compositions can sound jangly and amateurish, and his aggressive, often nasal singing voice is initially abrasive and strange—the opposite of commercial.
Smith's music is undeniably joyful, though, and the joy gets more and more contagious as the film goes on. During one tour, Smith appears on stage in an enormous tree costume bearing nine fruits of the Holy Spirit. Quick: can you name them? Neither could I, but ultimately, my lack of knowledge in Christian mythology didn't get in the way of enjoying the performance. That seems to be Aronson's point. The film does an intelligent and sensitive job of exploring Smith's faith, and neither the music nor the movie ever feel preachy or didactic.
Some of the funniest and most revealing interview footage is of bemused concert goers who have just experienced live Danielson shows. At both Christian music festivals and decidedly secular venues, the response is often similar: cautiously enthusiastic, yet baffled. It is as if believers and nonbelievers alike are waiting for someone to validate their responses, waiting to be granted permission to go ahead and like the music. As is so often the case with challenging music, other musicians, like Alan Sparhawk of Low, are lavish with their praise.
We get to see plenty of other kinds of conflict, too. In its earliest incarnations, Danielson Famile—originally from Clarksboro, New Jersey—is a strictly homegrown operation, and over the course of the years, family and school obligations took their toll on the band's ability to record and tour together. The Danielson interviews are emotionally engaging enough that we come to care about each individual band member and to feel invested in the success of the group. That's quite an achievement for a film that mostly serves as an introduction to a relatively low-profile band.
There is also, inevitably, the question of money, and the struggle for Smith—who is as devoted to his family as he is to his music—to make Danielson a financially viable career option. Many of the people interviewed for the film, including band members, seem to take it as a foregone conclusion that the music has a fairly limited appeal. It might not be realistic to predict Sufjan Stevens-sized mainstream success for this band, but that shouldn't stop anyone from enjoying a well-done documentary. (The timid can, of course, always dip their toes into Danielson's myspace.com profile before committing to an entire film.)
Like most documentaries, Danielson suffers from occasional meandering stretches, and would probably benefit from tighter editing all the way through, but it succeeds well enough on multiple levels to make it worth watching. The film's lasting impression is one of genuine warmth and infectious joy. It would take a far more godless grump than me to resist sharing in some of Danielson's spirited enthusiasm.